The New Console Wars

written by Alastrom

 

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The Console Wars have existed for as long as there have been competing markets. I used to get in fights with my brothers about the Gameboy versus the Atari Lynx. Eventually it was the N64 versus the Playstation and then Playstation 2 versus Xbox and then Xbox360 versus Playstation 3. It’s a constant back and forth between the two major competitors with gamers feeling the need to take one side over the other. We externally define ourselves to others by our internal choices and that’s why the “console wars” continue to rage on to this very minute. It might seem a bit silly in retrospect, but it’s spelled big profit for the companies involved. For gamers, this most often manifests as “console exclusives” but we’re about to see a new competitor enter the arena. Epic Games has been making a number of interesting business decisions as of late and many feel this will culminate in players having to choose sides between Steam and Epic. In place of console wars, we’ll find ourselves in distribution wars. If that’s the case, gamers may be forced into a new wave of brand identity that none of us want to be a part of.

You see, the console wars are in fact the most pointless debate we’ve ever engaged in. It’s the suggestion that Halo is a horrible series because you enjoyed the Uncharted games. It’s like suggesting that you’re not going to see James Bond in theaters because you’re a Game of Thrones fan. It doesn’t make any sense to cut yourself off from great games because of the console they’re on. Don’t get me wrong, consoles are expensive but they’re not so inaccessible that you can’t own both. The real problem is that consoles come with exclusives. Incentives to buy one or the other. I have a hard time imagining that developers are happy with these exclusive deals. All they serve to do is reduce the number of people that can experience their games and the worlds they’ve created. I may not like exclusivity, but hardware and development time considered, console exclusives at least make sense. What doesn’t make sense is distribution exclusives.

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A few months ago, I noticed that certain developers were signing distribution deals with Epic Games, a company who is owned in part by Chinese tech conglomerate, Tencent. This struck me as odd as the developers being signed over were producing niche games for niche audiences. We can discuss strategy at length, but at a glance it appears they want to quietly gobble up the niche market so that future sales are forced towards the Epic Games store. Once those niche players are there, the audience can begin to organically grow with much larger and highly anticipated titles. Epic has been offering a number of incentives for companies to switch to their platform, including higher revenue sharing when compared to Steam (as high as 88% with Epic versus 70% with Steam) and very aggressive marketing campaigns. As the old saying goes, what’s good for the bee is good for the hive. Gamers should rejoice in the competition though I am worried these exclusives are going to further split games further down the divide.

Steam isn’t without it’s problems. The company went from developing games to almost exclusively distributing them and some have argued that their “Greenlight” program has only served to reduce the level of quality previously found on the platform. While these are problems in their own right, I’ve been a Steam user for nearly fourteen years. I’m also an early adopter of the SteamVR hardware, the Vive. I’ve supported the company for that amount of time because they continue to offer value to me as a consumer in the form of sales and ease of access. I’m willing to give Epic Games that same consideration but I do not agree with their business practices towards consumers and at this time, I choose to remain off the platform. This sadly means that I won’t be playing Borderlands 3 at launch and I doubt it’ll end there.

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The fact is, I just don’t trust Epic Games’ partnership with Tencent. While its been stated that there’s no information sharing between the two companies, one cannot ignore the affiliation. It wasn’t long ago that Chinese company, Huawei, was accused of spying on American citizens through their more affordable smart phones. China has an aggressive surveillance campaign against their own citizens and one has to wonder if they aren’t interested in expanding it on a global scale. While I don’t believe there’s any evidence that this is happening now, what’s to stop Tencent from making that demand of Epic one day? Gamers took note of a number of processes that Epic runs in the background and one Reddit user suggested that the company was already spying on its user base. Daniel Vogel, Epic’s VP of Engineering, eventually went on to counter these arguments on the Phoenix Point sub Reddit, a game that was previously promised to release on Steam. He stated:

“We use a tracking pixel (tracking.js) for our Support-A-Creator program so we can pay creators. We also track page statistics.

The launcher sends a hardware survey (CPU, GPU, and the like) at a regular interval as outlined in our privacy policy (see the “Information We Collect or Receive” section). You can find the code here.

The UDP traffic highlighted in this post is a launcher feature for communication with the Unreal Editor. The source of the underlying system is available on github.

The majority of the launcher UI is implemented using web technology that is being rendered by Chromium (which is open source). The root certificate and cookie access mentioned above is a result of normal web browser start up.

The launcher scans your active processes to prevent updating games that are currently running. This information is not sent to Epic.

We only import your Steam friends with your explicit permission. The launcher makes an encrypted local copy of your localconfig.vdf Steam file. However information from this file is only sent to Epic if you choose to import your Steam friends, and then only hashed ids of your friends are sent and no other information from the file.”

While his explanation did offer some insight into how Epic’s software was operating on the users computer, not everyone found the answer satisfactory. Regardless, I take no peace of mind in how the company conducts itself. Internet security is still sorcery and magic to many users and regardless of why Epic is collecting information, they need to do a better job of walking the fine line between what you can do and what you should.

So what’s the solution? Do we simply ignore any game that comes to Epic as an exclusive? I think that’ll be difficult and on a long enough time line, it probably won’t be effective. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance these questions are already on your mind and I sadly have no real answers for you. Epic is clearly aware that users have some reservations about getting on board with their platform. They’ll need to take steps to correct those concerns and that’ll be difficult to do if they keep pushing people away with exclusivity deals. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to directly compete; on some level they’re asking us to make a decision between the two. While Epic is missing a number of features that Steam currently offers, they have published a roadmap that promises to implement a number of beloved features that their competitor already offers. But no one is going to be impressed if they simply copy what Steam has already been doing successfully for years. Both companies will need to change drastically to continue winning the support of their respective markets.

Of course, none of this is a concrete reason why you shouldn’t support Epic. While I may not like some of their practices, I can’t argue that they haven’t already been effective. I’m willing to accept that I’m over reacting to the idea of a new kid on the block. After all, I regularly use Origin and uPlay, both for titles that are exclusive to those platforms. Though I have been with Steam for well over a decade, there also hasn’t been many other options in that time. I have some major complaints with the content they’ve allowed on their platform as well and it’s not unfair to say that maybe the company has become a bit complacent in recent years. With no other concerns on the table, I’d love to see another company give Steam a run for their money. I want these two companies to earn my dollar instead of simply expecting it and that’s where I believe both have failed. But as it stands right now, Epic is forcing gamers hands and that’s not something I’m willing to be a part of.

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Simply put, we can only have true competition when gamers are given a choice in their platform. I’ve long feared that we simply hand over money too easily for new games. Too many of us claim to dislike the direction certain games are going and still choose to support those games anyway. It’s not the easy path, but it is important that gamers become informed and vote with their wallets. If you truly take offense to how Epic or Steam is operating, don’t support them. Money speaks loudest when it remains silent but gamers still refuse to acknowledge that point. And let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean you should pirate games if they choose exclusivity. You need to ignore the product entirely. Don’t take part in the discussion. Ignore it entirely. The real battle is not between Xbox and Playstation, Steam or Epic, but instead between the developer and the gamer. If the developer continues to make choices that you don’t agree with, fight back with the greatest weapon you possess – the ability to ignore them.

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